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The Promise and Responsibilities of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

Dr. Christopher A. Ford, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation
Remarks to the 19th Annual United Nations Conference on Disarmament Issues
Sapporo, Japan
August 27, 2007

United States efforts to promote international nuclear cooperation and spread the many benefits of nuclear technology long predate the formation of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957 and the opening for signature of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968. They date, in fact, at least from President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953. In that seminal address, Eisenhower proposed a broad international approach to promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear power worldwide, suggesting to this end the creation of an international atomic energy agency and a system of nuclear safeguards. Ever since that famous address, the promotion of international nuclear cooperation has been a consistent U.S. commitment. Today, with the world's energy needs increasing dramatically, particularly in the developing world, even as the environmental perils of fossil fuel consumption become ever more obvious, it is a U.S. policy priority to make the use of nuclear energy to generate electrical power more available to the populations of the developed and developing worlds alike.

Nuclear energy first developed in the crucible of a desperate global conflict. It was pioneered as a weapon of war before it became a tool of peace and development. Nuclear energy thus has always had a Janus-faced aspect, offering humankind both great peril and extraordinary promise. Nuclear weapons scientist Robert Oppenheimer's well-known quotation from the Bhagavad-Gita upon witnessing the first nuclear weapons test drew from a verse which, in its entirety, references not just the destructive power of Death, but also the creative power that forms the origin of things yet to be. Nuclear technology is like that: it embodies a nearly unbelievable power to destroy, but at the same time an extraordinary power to create - to enrich our lives, to provide the electric power by which we may read at night, to produce potable water from the ocean's brine, to help cure deadly diseases, and to enable science and industry to advance in innumerable ways that can improve the quality of life for people in all societies.

This paradigmatically "dual-use" nature of atomic energy is why promoting its peaceful uses is such a great responsibility. There has, no doubt, been a tension between the use and misuse of technology for as long as mankind first discovered how to use stone tools and fire, but nuclear energy brings this tension perhaps to its pinnacle. Today, we must exercise enormous vigilance in order to ensure that our knowledge does not overmaster our wisdom.

This tension between use and misuse has always been a challenge for efforts to promote international nuclear cooperation. Simply put, it is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that such promotion remains a force for good in the world, and does not become instead a vehicle for destruction and instability, and that its promotion does not usher in an age of nuclear proliferation that would seriously enhance the danger of a nuclear war which - as the NPT's Preamble puts it - would visit devastation upon all mankind.

International efforts to promote nuclear energy have not always involved what, it is clear today, were wise choices. For some years, for instance, nuclear cooperation programs helped build research reactors around the world that were fueled on highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that was usable (or nearly usable) directly in nuclear weapons. Now, we recognize that having so much HEU spread around the world does not serve nonproliferation interests - and furthermore, that there is no need even to consider taking such risks when there are high-flux light-water reactors available that can run on low-enriched uranium (LEU) fuel. Accordingly, since 1978, the United States has spent enormous sums of money to help return HEU to its countries of origin, and to convert nuclear reactors around the world from HEU to LEU cores without loss of productive efficiency. The "Reduced Enrichment for Research and Test Reactors" (RERTR) program of the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) seek to minimize and, if possible, eliminate the use of HEU in civil nuclear programs throughout the world. RERTR, for instance, has identified approximately 130 research and test reactors worldwide, including in the United States, as candidates for conversion - and has already converted, fully or partially, more than 50 of those reactors. Under GTRI, the RERTR program has set an aggressive goal to complete the conversion of all such identified research reactors by 2018, as well as to develop LEU-based "targets" for the production of valuable medical isotopes.

More dramatic still, it is worth remembering that for a number of years, it was seriously thought that nuclear explosive devices would themselves have important "peaceful" applications - as giant excavating tools, perhaps. In the negotiations over drafting the NPT, for instance, a surprising number of governments supported deliberately spreading what was in effect nuclear weapons technology in order to give countries the ability to utilize "peaceful nuclear explosions" (PNEs) of this sort. Some even tried to have PNE technology-development described in the Treaty as a "right." Fortunately, nothing so foolish was actually done, but Article V of the NPT nonetheless makes theoretical provision for the NPT nuclear-weapon states to supply PNE services to the developing world. Clearly, enthusiasms for peaceful nuclear applications sometimes can overwhelm the good sense of suppliers and recipients alike.

History thus shows that well-meaning people do not always take positions on peaceful uses that genuinely serve the overarching global interest in nonproliferation. In addition, unfortunate instances have occurred in which assistance for peaceful purposes was later misused to support a weapons program; we have learned from this, and improved mechanisms to address similar problems in the future. It is clear that the international community is capable of recognizing mistakes and correcting them - and of finding ways to expand international nuclear cooperation in more responsible ways. This illustrates the need always to consider the peaceful uses of nuclear technology through the prism of what President Eisenhower, in his "Atoms for Peace" speech, referred to as "elementary prudence."

Today, the world faces a loosely analogous dilemma: how to deal with the spread of nuclear fuel-cycle technology - specifically, uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing - that can give its possessors the capability, at their option, to produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons. This was a problem of far less concern in the past, in part because when the NPT was being negotiated, enrichment technology was available to very few countries, and was commonly treated as tightly-controlled national security information precisely because of its obvious utility in making nuclear weapons. As one official from the Australian Safeguards and Non-Proliferation Office put it recently, "[u]ntil the 1990s[,] it was assumed that development of enrichment capability would be beyond the technological means of most states."[1] (Reprocessing technology was also quite restricted.)

Today, however, thanks in part to indigenous development efforts and in part to the activities of A.Q. Khan and his ilk, enrichment technology is increasingly available - and there exists a conflict between the spread of peaceful fuel-cycle activity and nonproliferation good sense. The proliferation of ENR capabilities also poses challenges for IAEA nuclear safeguards, particularly in terms of detecting undeclared activities and providing assurances of their absence, and ensuring timely warning of the diversion of materials for improper purposes sufficient to permit an effective response. (As President Bush noted in his Joint Declaration with Russian President Putin in July 2007, we also need to ensure that the IAEA has the resources it needs to meet its safeguards responsibilities as nuclear power expands worldwide.) Moreover, even if its facilities are adequately safeguarded, a non-nuclear-weapon state that could produce fissile material upon demand is a country that has already acquired what the IAEA Director General has called a "virtual" nuclear weapons program - a dangerous capacity for at-will "breakout" from the NPT regime. Such developments clearly fly in the face of elementary nonproliferation prudence.

The examples of HEU reactors and PNEs, however, demonstrate that such dilemmas can sometimes be solved in ways that both prevent or reduce proliferation dangers and support the continued expansion and deepening of peaceful international nuclear cooperation. The HEU problem is now being addressed by an effective conversion program for research reactors, and by the development of suitable LEU-based targets and processes for producing medical isotopes. And if PNEs had shown the economic and environmental feasibility that many had expected - which turned out not to be the case, although that is another story - the NPT's Article V would have provided a means by which they could be supplied by NPT nuclear-weapon states, allowing their benefits to be shared without spreading de facto nuclear-weapons technology around the world.

Similarly, efforts are underway today to solve the proliferation challenges of ENR by a combination of new technological developments and the provision of services by technology possessors. The U.S. Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP), for instance, seeks to develop over time more proliferation-resistant nuclear processes, ways to produce less spent fuel, better safeguards methods, more proliferation-resistant reactors optimized for the needs of the developing world, and innovative ways of providing "cradle-to-grave" fuel services from enrichment through spent-fuel handling and disposal. The United States is also working with other countries to develop a coordinated nuclear fuel-supply system that would complement the robust and reliable international nuclear fuel market that currently exists - and which would thus provide even more assurances against fuel-supply interruptions with regard to peaceful energy generation in any country that follows the rules of the nonproliferation regime. Such mechanisms hold out the promise not simply of making the spread of ENR technology even more unnecessary, but also of permitting international nuclear cooperation to continue to expand in proliferation-responsible ways.

There is still time for the world to act upon elementary prudence and work together on new arrangements that will eliminate any need for countries to consider the costly and unnecessary - and therefore uneconomical - investment in the most sensitive nuclear fuel cycle capabilities. With many countries considering new or expanded nuclear power programs, now is the time to address what the IAEA Director General has called the "Achilles Heel" of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Furthermore, such prudence, I emphasize, does not need to carry with it any cost in terms of foregone economic or developmental opportunities. We have the very real prospect before us of perhaps being able - as the English saying goes - to have our cake and eat it too. But we can take advantage of such an opportunity only if we do not let ill-considered enthusiasms run away with us.

There is every reason for us all to follow such elementary prudence, and no good reason not to. As I have noted before, some have asserted that any State Party in demonstrable compliance with the NPT has a specific right to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, and that efforts to restrict access to the relevant technologies is inconsistent with the NPT. The Treaty is silent on the issue of whether compliant states have the right to develop the full nuclear fuel cycle, but as I have noted elsewhere, it does provide for discretion on the part of supplier states regarding the nature of their cooperation with other states. Sharing specific technology, especially technology problematic from a proliferation standpoint, is certainly not required by the NPT. Article IV of the Treaty, for instance, does not require any specific sharing of nuclear technology between particular States Party, nor does it oblige technology-possessors to share any specific materials or technology with non-possessors. (Efforts during the NPT negotiations to incorporate a duty to share in the applications of nuclear energy were proposed, debated, and rejected - and in any event were likewise not specific as to particular technologies.) Indeed, supplier states must consider, under the circumstances particular to every proposed transfer, whether certain assistance is consistent with Article I and Article III obligations. Moreover, it makes sense with regard to the overall objective of the NPT - strengthening international peace and security by halting nuclear proliferation - for suppliers to consider whether such assistance is consistent with the Treaty's nonproliferation purposes and other relevant international undertakings.

Whatever one thinks of Article IV, however, U.S. officials have emphasized that participation in programs such as our GNEP initiative will be entirely voluntary. We do not seek to impose new obligations on states, infringe on sovereign decisions concerning energy policy, or question the NPT's promise of peaceful nuclear sharing. Instead, our efforts focus upon incentives to reduce risks and make nuclear power a more attractive option for states. The GNEP effort, for instance, will not view states in terms of "haves" and "have-nots." Rather states will either "choose" or "choose not" to participate in GNEP. Fundamentally, it's really about choices: whether states are ready to work together to be part of a safer and more secure fuel cycle that will not carry the same proliferation risks that we currently deal with today.

In the end, despite the very real challenge presented today by the spread of ENR and "virtual" nuclear weapons programs, I believe that the real lesson of history for peaceful nuclear uses is one of hope. Despite the spread of much nuclear technology to the four corners of the world and the ever-greater expansion of international nuclear cooperation, we have not yet seen the development of the highly unstable, highly proliferated world that many expected by the beginning of the 21st Century. Despite having for a time promoted HEU reactors and even considered PNEs, participants in the NPT regime have been willing to walk away from unnecessary, economically irrational, or dangerous technology-sharing ideas even as valuable cooperative efforts have managed to expand in more responsible ways. If we keep our wits about us, we can surmount today's ENR challenges too, and help the NPT regime serve all countries' interests - in international peace and security and in increased nuclear cooperation - as well, or better, over the next forty years as it has over the last.

Thank you.

[1] John Carlson, "Addressing Proliferation Challenges from the Spread of Uranium Enrichment Capability," remarks to the 48th Annual Meeting of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management, Tucson, Arizona (July 9, 2007), at slide 2.

Released on September 25, 2007

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